TRISHA DEAN - All that is Solid

A survey of the practice of Barbara Campbell-Allen over the past three decades reveals the evolution of an individual aesthetic which is formed and informed by an abiding connection with the creative possibilities of earth and fire.

2009 marks 25 years as a ceramic artist, writer, curator and educator for Barbara Campbell-Allen. It is timely then for an overview of the development of an individual aesthetic and educational philosophy which grows out of a deep personal commitment to working with clay. In Campbell-Allen’s practice we see an evolving aesthetic which continues to successfully respond to shifts in the cultural, social and economic landscape of the last three decades.

Campbell-Allen’s curriculum vitae reveals the broad scope of her practice. She is internationally recognised as a writer, conference speaker, curator, educator, ceramic artist and ceramic technician. She is an artist who has made a significant contribution to the field of contemporary ceramic practice in the areas of research and education. She has held seven solo exhibitions in the past ten years and and participated many group and award exhibitions in the local, national and international arena. In her teaching position at the Workshop Art Centre, held since 1988 she imbues her students with a solid grounding in technique, history and aesthetics. As President of the Australian Ceramics Association in 2005-2006 she was instrumental in the introduction of a group insurance scheme which ensures that ceramic artists nationally have access to affordable product and public liability insurance.

Her development as a ceramic artist began as a high school student under the tutelage of Sandra Taylor, who was then employed by the NSW Education Department as a specialist ceramics teacher. After completing a BA at Macquarie University she decided to pursue a career in ceramics and belongs to a generation who studied at East Sydney Tech (NAS), in the early 1980s. At the time the emphasis was on training in production techniques and obtaining a solid technical grounding to prepare for studio production of functional wares to supply galleries, markets and shops. Changes in the global economic landscape in the mid ‘90s saw the market flooded with good quality cheap imports and individual studio potters found it much harder to survive in this climate.

For Campbell-Allen, and for many others there was a conscious shift away from making production ware as a means of economic survival. In this period she engaged in intensive specialised research into historical, aesthetic and technical aspects of woodfiring at Monash University. In 1994 she gained a Graduate Diploma of Arts and in 2000 a Master of Visual Arts, both from Monash University. The findings of her research into process and aesthetics have sustained her art practice in the past decade. Her Masters exhibition One Dream Too Many, an installation piece, comprising a series of ruptured spheres and spire forms made from woodfired paperclay, was held at Mary Place Gallery, Sydney in 2000.

The publication of aspects of her research in national and international ceramics journals has contributed significantly to the broader knowledge base and gained Campbell-Allen national and international recognition for her work. Her articles focused on the use of paperclay bodies for woodfiring, the development of fired colour in the anagama kiln, and aesthetic developments in contemporary woodfired ceramics. The connections between kiln design, fuel type, claybody, and firing and cooling cycles, in relation to the way colour develops in the kiln is described in articles such as Contemporary Anagama Practice (Ceramics Technical No.4 1997) and Anagama Firebox Colour (Ceramics Technical no.12 2001). In 2000 she was engaged as a technical consultant to a ceramic company in Egypt who were exporting pottery to Europe. She advised on the adaptation of traditional Egyptian ceramics to a European climate.

In 2003 Campbell-Allen was invited to curate the Australian Ceramics Association’s national exhibition, held at the Manly Art Gallery and Museum. Entitled Beyond Earth - Exploring the Plastic Limits of Clay, her curatorial essay (Journal of Australian Ceramics Vol 43#3) encapsulates many of the themes and ideas which form the foundation of her own explorations. The basis of the exhibition was to provide a counterpoint to the minimalist design aesthetic which she describes as being ‘static’ and ‘sterile in nature’ often ‘disengaging the viewer, because there is no evidence of the making process or sense of the work being hand made.’ She sought work from artists who engaged with ‘the essential sculptural quality of clay as a medium most responsive to the human hand …….in the creation of an individual language that utilized clay’s plasticity to communicate ideas.’ Artists were encouraged to ‘push clay to its plastic limits’ – to fold, to weave, to impress and to stretch. It is this sense of plastic possibility and pushing aesthetic and technical boundaries which characterises Campbell-Allen’s recent works.

Firing with wood introduces the element of chance in determining surface and colour effects. Much of her work over the last twenty years has been fired in her anagama style kiln – fondly referred to as ‘Ana’. Landscape and its social, historical and environmental contexts are points of inspiration and exploration. In recent years she has exhibited two major bodies of work which draw on her experiences canyoning and walking in the Blue Mountains National Park, west of Sydney. She describes the thought processes and sensory experiences which underpin these works, in her artist statement (2001). “My sources lie in my experience of the created natural world, in rocks and stones, canyons and chasms…..’ In works such as Bungonia Creek (2001) the artist uses slabs of porcelain clay to create textured block-like vessels to capture the essence of colour and form reminiscent of these landscapes.

It was this engagement with landscape and its associations which led curator Margaret Farmer to invite Campbell-Allen to participate in a major exhibition at the Ivan Dougherty Gallery in Sydney in 2004. In her curatorial essay for the exhibition entitled Terra Alterius – land of another. Farmer describes how twelve artists, six indigenous and six non-indigenous were asked to imagine “a land in which indigenous and non-indigenous cultures first meet and interact with respect for each other’s existence, differences, laws and culture ….. to imagine an Australia that was recognised as terra alterius, land of another rather than treated as terra nullius, land of no-one”. Campbell-Allen’s response was to make ‘Old Rivers’, a series of 12 large woodfired disc forms installed on the floor of the gallery. She describes the pieces as a ‘collection of places or microcosms; a collection of memories, experienced at a particular point in time.’ Each of the twelve components was sparked by a particular memory and together they became her response to ‘the Australian land’.

This fascination with landscape and the earth’s processes both constructive and destructive are themes further explored in Slowtime, her most recent exhibition at the John Freeland Gallery in Sydney. In her artist statement for the exhibition Campbell-Allen describes her response to the landscapes of two ancient ports – Paphos and Salamis on the island of Cyprus.

This work reflects an environment rich in the memories and actions of others, but over time, natural forces have melded an ancient metropolis to an empty field, punctuated by the foundations of once imposing civic buildings…..Amongst colossal fallen columns, only the corners remain standing, a reminder of the impermanence of our existence yet affirmation of our resilience.

In works such as Construct I and Construct II (2008) we see the combination of angular and soft folded clay elements which capture a sense of the fusion of human construction with timeless landforms. The integration of random colour and surface qualities caused by the action of flame and ash on the pieces echoes the action of weathering and reminds us of the powerful elemental forces which govern the natural world.

Campbell-Allen writes that Slowtime evokes the considered process of building and firing pieces which can only achieve their aesthetic potential by exposure to flame and wood ash over time. ‘
In her article Magic and Ash, (Ceramics Monthly October 2000) she acknowledges that
‘Woodfiring is irrational in economic terms, but the beauty and uniqueness of the surfaces continually reassures me that this magical process is worth pursuing”. Underpinning the poetics and chance effects of woodfiring is the application of meticulous research and sound methodology.

2008 marks the end of a firing era for Campbell-Allen. ‘Ana’ has come to the end of her working life and her demise marks a transitional period for the artist. Through research and experimentation she had identified the different zones which produced specific colour ranges and surface textures. These dramatic colours and surfaces formed the palette, which have characterised her work for the past 15 years. Large slab built paperclay wall panels such as Forest (2007) and Constellation (2007) exploit these effects to their maximum impact – the surfaces and colours evoking the drama of light, shade and tonal variation in weathered Australian landscapes.

Her new kiln ‘Matilda’ is the vehicle which will play a part in determining the aesthetic development of her work in the future. The design of the kiln is the result of the combined experience and knowledge of herself and Korean-born artist Kwirak Choung who collaborated with her on the project. The pair are still experimenting with stacking variations and firing and cooling cycles in order to determine the scope of fired possibility within the different zones of the kiln. In her article Waltzing Matilda (Journal of Australian Ceramics 46#3 2007) Campbell-Allen describes the way the new kiln was designed to maximize firebox opportunities and capture ash. The design included features which have become popular in contemporary woodfire practice such as a sutema which is placed behind the main chamber before the flue exit. The sutema is an area of where the concentration of flame, heat and ash is allowing new and exciting aesthetic possibilities. Campbell-Allen has discovered that her small asymmetrical bottle forms are ideal for placement in this area of the kiln.

Over the past twenty-five years Campbell-Allen has devoted herself to the intense creative and physical demands of working with clay and firing with wood. In her work we see an evolving aesthetic which continues to engage with the destructive and constructive power of the earth’s processes and the temporal and illusory nature of ‘all that is solid’.

Campbell-Allen is currently developing a body of new work for an exhibition with Kwirak Choung in April 2009 at Melbourne gallery, Skepsi on Swanston.

About the author

Trisha Dean is a ceramic artist and writer, and former editor of the Journal of Australian Ceramics. She lectures in ceramics at universities and metropolitan TAFE colleges in NSW. The title of this article is inspired by Marshall Berman’s book ‘All that is Solid Melts into Air’ (New York 1982), a line he originally derived from Karl Marx’s Communist Manifesto (1848)

Reproduced from Craft Arts International #76, 2009, p75.